The Thomas Vanek Dilemma


Twenty minutes after 3 p.m EST on the March 5th trade deadline, it appeared that the dust had settled on the wildest NHL trade deadline in recent memory. You could have formed a mini NHL All-Star team with some of the names that were traded, with Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo, Jaroslav Halak Marian Gaborik, Ales Hemsky, Matt Moulson, and Ryan Callahan all changing addresses.

Yet the name that had circulated for the longest time was that of Thomas Vanek, who had reportedly turned down a seven year deal to the tune of $50 million dollars from the New York Islanders, according to Katie Strang of ESPN New York.

That sealed Vanek’s fate as an Islander; March 5th saw him traded to the Montreal Canadiens along with a conditional 5th round pick for second round prospect Sebastien Collberg and a conditional second round pick if Montreal were to make the post season.

The hockey community hailed this as a coup for Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin; a mid level prospect and a second rounder for Thomas Vanek, a proven offensive force in the NHL? From a managerial standpoint, Bergevin irrefutably swindled the hapless Garth Snow (who had originally acquired Vanek for Moulson, a first rounder, and a second rounder…ouch).

The Austrian born winger lagged in adapting to his new team, looking lost in his first few outings during the Habs’ western swing. I got a chance to see Vanek play in person in his second game as a Hab against the San Jose Sharks, a 4-0 snoozefest that saw Peter Budaj give up an embarrassing shorthanded goal where he fumbled a soft dump in, only to let Sharks forward Tommy Wingels bang home the rebound.

Basically, it seemed like the Canadiens had been out a little too late in San Francisco the night before. But on a late power play in the third period, Michel Therrien put Vanek on a line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais, and they actually seemed to click, being one of the few lines that night that could connect more than two passes in a row, even generating some shots on net.

As fate would have it, that line became one of the most dominant in recent Canadiens history. In the 18 regular season games Vanek played in a Habs uniform, he potted 15 points and revitalized a dormant Montreal offense.

Since the buzzer sounded on the regular season though, the narrative has flipped on Vanek, and deservedly so.

Analysts love to use the phrase “compete level” when assessing players. This usually entails an arbitrary combination battles won along the boards, cross checks taken to the back, and teeth lost. By that measure, Bobby Clarke is the greatest NHL player of all time, so we know that’s bogus.

The reality is that not all players play the way the media and fans would want them to, and no amount of angry blogs or on air tirades can change that. Alex Ovechkin will never backcheck, Joe Thornton will never shoot, and Bobby Ryan will never spell intense; these are notions NHL fans have come to begrudgingly accept.

Yet in Vanek’s case, where fans clamor for him to play with a higher “compete level”, he actually does show flashes of it:

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Here we see him getting back and supporting his defense, then sprinting all the way down the ice to finish the play. If you’re wondering what “compete level” could look like, well there you have it.

The problem is, we rarely see that Thomas Vanek anymore. He’s often casual with the puck, attempting  wild flip passes over forecheckers heads, or meekly attempting to retrieve the puck in the neutral zone. At times he’ll over stick handle, seemingly in his own bubble, either trying to do too much, or not realizing the urgency of the moment.

Is the nearly point per game player of the regular season the real Vanek, or is he the 2014 incarnation of circa 2009 Alexei Kovalev?

Being the most high profile offensive player to come to Montreal since Kovalev, the parallel is too easy to make, yet it is also not unwarranted. Kovalev was a good, sometimes great player. The same can be said for Vanek: on most nights, he’s good, on some nights he’s great. He’s not the player that’s going to lead the Canadiens to another Stanley Cup, as this post season has proven. That’s guys like P.K Subban, Max Pacioretty, and Rene Bourque (Yes, I included Rene Bourque on a list with P.K  Subban and Max Pacioretty. Things happen. People change).

The problem is, Vanek believes he is that player, or at least that he should be paid as such. He’s routinely averted questions about his long term status in Montreal, basically playing the hired gun role to a tee. He knows that someone out there will overpay for him, and it could be the Canadiens if the market slides that way.  Is there really a Cup waiting for him in Minnesota, where the consensus has him signing this summer? The Wild can’t get past the second round, and they have some serious questions to ask themselves in net. And what contender would take a flyer on him? San Jose? They’re trying to figure out what the hell their team is going to look like next season. Boston? Chicago? LA? Anaheim? Those teams are set up front. Pittsburgh could be a possibility, seeing as how they’re trying to dramatically alter their franchise. Maybe Toronto could find a way to sign Vanek to a horrible contract, they’re getting pretty good at doing that sort of thing.

Thomas Vanek’s best chance at a Stanley Cup is in a Montreal Canadiens uniform. How weird does that sound? Looking at this team though, and you see a young nucleus with a certified stud on the blueline and in net, depth up front, and decent prospects in the pipeline such as Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi.  To boot, they have loads of cap space and their top players are locked up long term, which could feasibly allow them to re-sign both Vanek and Subban this off season, although probably at the cost of letting go Andrei Markov.

Judging by his playoff performance though, this much is clear: Thomas Vanek is not worth the top dollar he’ll be demanding. That money could better be spent strengthening Montreal’s depth on the blueline, or on quality bottom six forwards. At the right price, Vanek could propel the Canadiens into an elite regular season team, but in reality, he’d eat up the cap space needed to address actual weaknesses. If Bergevin has real aspirations of bringing a 25th Stanley Cup back to Montreal, he’ll pocket that money and look elsewhere.

For more on the Canadiens, follow Felix on Twitter: @FelixSicard




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